Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Hospitality as stewardship

Use hospitality one to another without grudging. As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God; if any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God giveth: that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:9-11).

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Here is the heart of stewardship. Whatever gifts, abilities and opportunities we have, they were not given to us for selfish use, to enhance our image before others. We are to take what we have received and use it to serve others, and by doing that to glorify God, the giver of those gifts.

Some folks have been taught that hospitality means having their home in perfect order so that their guests see how important they are by the effort expended on preparing for their visit. One time I went to visit a cousin who had just moved into a new house. I walked in the door and saw a spotless home with brand new furniture and wondered if I even dared set foot on the carpet. My cousin invited me into the living room, sat down on the couch, leaned back and put his sock-clad feet up on the coffee table. After that I was at ease.

Hospitality is putting people before things. It applies both ways, guests should not notice things that are not quite as they should be, and absolutely should not talk about such things to others.

If we speak (or write), let us do it boldly, but remember that we are just offering our words to others. We have no directive from the Lord to enforce our ideas upon others. That doesn’t work, anyway. A steward is a servant, not a lord.

In hospitality, as in speaking, writing and whatever we do that brings us into contact with others, our first responsibility as steward of the manifold grace of God, is to help others feel at ease. People are not apt to be receptive to truth when they feel intimidated.

Who is our master?

And he said also unto his disciples, There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods. And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward. Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. So he called every one of his lord’s debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore. (Luke 16:1-7)

And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations. He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much. If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own? (Verses 7-12)

No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. (Verse 13)

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The parable of the unjust steward seems to mystify many of Christians. The conduct of this steward, in asking people to pay less than the original contract, seems contrary to our notion of good stewardship.

Our problem is a misunderstanding of the role of a steward. The owner of a large domain had many responsibilities and did not want to be troubled with arranging for the farming of his agricultural land. So he engaged a steward to handle that, on the proviso that the steward would provide the lord with his needs from the land. The steward would be remunerated by adding enough to each tenant’s payment to cover the needs of his own household. On a large estate, the second largest house was usually be the home of the steward.

In this parable, it appears that in some cases the steward was taking as much for himself as for his lord. The waste that he was accused of was in placing a burden on the tenant farmers that they could hardly bear. He is called unjust, not because of unfaithfulness to Mammon, but because of his close alliance with mammon, which itself is unrighteous (verses 9 and 11). As eventually happens to all who trust in Mammon, he finds himself betrayed.

The light now dawns and he turns around. Before, he had oppressed others in demanding payment to the maximum of their ability. Now, he administers grace to his master’s debtors in releasing them from a portion of their debts. It is within his power while still a steward to do this and it appears that he erased the portion that he was taking for himself. He now sees that in the long term it will be in his best interest to do what he can to lighten the burdens of others.

Verse 8 says “And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely”. Jesus instructs us to take the conduct of the steward for our example. This interpretation may be problematic for Christians who see stewardship as being principally concerned with the gain and care of material wealth. We say that it is God’s will that we exercise good stewardship of our material possessions in order to be able to share with others and support mission programs. Is it possible that at times we are motivated more by the portion that we want for themselves than by the portion that we plan to give to God?

What place do the needs of others have in the minds of Christians who are  trying to be good stewards? How much room is there for compassion in this type of stewardship? It is convenient to decide that the poor are poor because they don’t want to work and don’t take care of what they do have. We make a distinction between the “deserving” poor and those not so “deserving”, which provides a neat way out when faced with those whose needs are very real, though self-inflicted.

The conclusion of this parable is found in verse 13: “No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” This is integral to the explanation of the parable of the unjust steward. To separate it is to find the parable confusing and perhaps meaningless.

It seems to me that in order to be “good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Peter 2:10) we need to consider the needs of others, not only in material things but also in the use of our time and talents.

Stewards of the grace of God

“As every man has received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as faithful stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Peter 4:10).

I don’t recall ever hearing much discussion of this topic. When we talk of stewardship, we are generally thinking of our possessions and financial affairs, and too often it comes out sounding like “what’s good for my pocketbook is good for God.”

I wonder if we don’t tend to look on the grace of God in the same individualistic, self-centred way. I am so thankful for what God has done for me in forgiving my sins and setting me free from condemnation. Is that enough? Isn’t the grace of God supposed to be shared?

In the verses immediately before and after the verse quoted, Peter admonishes us to have fervent charity among ourselves, to be hospitable and to speak and serve, all by using the gifts that God has given us.

“Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man” (Clossians 4:6). “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers” (Ephesians 4:29).

Paul tells us that whenever we speak, our words should be motivated by the gift of grace that we have received, in such a way that we share that grace with others.

Giving reproof is a special case of serving others by the grace of God. If I see a brother do something wrong and say nothing, I am doing him no service. If I call him up and blast him for the wicked and disgraceful thing he has done, what are the chances that he will detect some trace of grace in my tirade? There is a way that I can minister grace in such a setting, but I must see myself as merely a servant and trust that the Holy Spirit is also speaking.

The parable of the talents should be considered in the sense of being stewards of the grace of God. When we serve others with the grace that God has given us, that grace is multiplied many times over. When we dig a hole in the backyard to protect that gift of grace from prying eyes, it is as if we had never received the gift of grace from God.

Courtesy

Courtesy and courtship are derived from the same root word and both convey the idea of trying to please someone else.  All other things being equal, the business that will thrive is the one that greets and serves its customers with genuine warmhearted courtesy.

On a trip some years ago, we stopped for gas around dinner time and decided to eat at the lunch counter attached to the business.  The waitress, perhaps the owner’s daughter, appeared to feel that it was beneath her dignity to wait on tables.  I believe the food was good, but we didn’t feel like we would need to eat there again.  At supper time, in another town, another café, we walked in the door and a waitress greeted us with a warm smile, led us to a table and provided prompt, friendly service throughout our meal.  I don’t remember that there was much difference in the quality or price of the food, but the courteous way we were treated in the second café made a huge difference in the way I remember those two meals.

I often stop at a Christian book store when I am in Saskatoon, as much for the coffee shop than for the books.  I am a totally boring person, always ordering the same thing, and the ladies in the coffee shop know I want a cappuccino with amaretto syrup before I open my mouth.  A while back, their espresso machine broke down and for two weeks they couldn’t make my cappuccino.  The third week, I cane to town early for a dental appointment.  After leaving so much money there, my wife suggested that I really couldn’t afford a cappuccino.  I went anyway and the ladies informed me that because I hadn’t given up on them, they were going to give me a free cappuccino.  Now that was service that really hit the spot!

I went to a pharmacy to get a prescription filled and there were two people ahead of me at the counter.  The first, an elderly gentleman, asked a question of the young clerk.  He didn’t understand her answer, so she tried again.  After the fourth explanation he seemed satisfied.  I couldn’t discern any hint of exasperation or condescension in the young lady’s attitude; she really wanted to help this confused old gentleman.  I was so impressed that I forgot all about being impatient.

The receptionist at my eye doctor’s office is like that.  One time when I came in for an appointment, she was talking on the phone to a client who had missed his appointment.  He had been in a few days earlier for tests, but couldn’t seem to understand why he needed to come in again to see the doctor.  When the receptionist was free to greet me, I told her that I hoped she would still be there when I got old and confused.

Behind the front counter of the vet clinic in our nearest town there is a little office where I spend a few hours every week working on their bookkeeping.  I can’t see what is going on out front, but I hear a lot.  Some pet owners have way too much time on their hands and expect the staff will have time to listen to all their stories.  Others are hypochondriacs on behalf of their pets.  Some are difficult, some are model customers, showing appreciation for every little thing that is done.  As far as I can tell, all are treated with the same cheerful and patient courtesy.

What about our attitude when we go into a place of business, a professional office or a government office?  We appreciate it when they are courteous to us, won’t they appreciate the same level of courtesy from us?  It seems to me that I have come to this late in life and I probably still have much to learn, but here are a few pointers.

Learn people’s names.  The waitress who serves me most often at the coffee shop is Karen.  My eye doctor’s receptionist is Sandy.  Making the effort to learn and use a person’s name shows that you realize they are an important person doing an important job.

Say thank you, and mean it.  The waitress, clerk or receptionist in front of me is just as important a person as I am.  Take time to notice what that person is doing and let her (or him) know that you appreciate her (his) efforts to help you.
Tip generously when you eat in a restaurant.  This is a subject that seems to be poorly understood by some Christian people.  It was said some years ago that when restaurant staff saw a table full of people bow their heads to pray before a meal they understood that they weren’t going to get much of a tip. Is it still that way?  Shame on us if it is.

We may think they are already being paid, why should we give them more?  These servers are hard-working people who receive a low wage, on the understanding that a good part of their earnings will come in the form of tips.  How important do we think we are that we expect to be treated royally without helping pay for the service?  A deacon of our acquaintance taught his children that if they couldn’t afford to leave a proper tip, they couldn’t afford to eat in a restaurant.

It really comes down to the concept that courtesy is much like courtship — trying to please others.  If we are cheerful and considerate of others, we will likely find that our encounters with grumpy and difficult people become quite rare.

Should Christians tithe?

Some Christians firmly believe that the Old Testament 10% rule is still in force for Christians today.  They tell inspirational tales of someone who was struggling financially and could hardly find any spare change for the collection plate.  Then they began to give 10% off the top of their income and, as if by magic, all their financial needs were supplied.

There are quite convincing arguments against the 10% requirement for Christians in the new dispensation.  First, there is no command to tithe to be found anywhere in the New Testament.  Second, it is argued, the tribe of Levi was given no inheritance in the promised land, thus the tithe was a tax to support the Levitical priesthood and is not needed in the present dispensation.

I believe these are entirely valid arguments.  Does that leave Christians with no direction or guidelines on how much to give?  If we are looking for a hard and fast rule, I don’t believe we are going to find it.  What I read in the New Testament leads me to the gut-wrenching conclusion that God wants everything I have and everything I am.

The rich young ruler could not handle Jesus’ command to sell everything.  Most of the rest of us would like to squirm out of it, too.  We may blithely say, “Everything I have belongs to Jesus.”  Would an impartial bystander be likely to believe that from the way we use our time and the material things that come into our hands?

“For who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?”  (1 Corinthians 4:7).  If everything that we have comes from God and is only a loan to us, can we then give 10% back to God, use the other 90% selfishly, and consider ourselves free?

Here is how it looks to me — the most important thing is that God wants us to trust Him completely, not only for our eternal destiny, but for all aspects of our earthly life.  He wants us to trust Him for our material needs, to trust Him to care for our family, our health, and to lead us in a way that will bring true happiness.  “O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps” (Jeremiah 10:23).

When faced with decisions regarding any aspect of our life, our prayer should be, “Lord, what couldst thou have me to do?”  Asking that question, and waiting for the answer, will save us many heartaches.

I hope this doesn’t sound hopelessly idealistic.  I believe it is eminently practical, but we make lots of mistakes in living it.  I like the British expression of “muddling through.”  I’m afraid that’s all that I am capable of, yet I believe that with God’s help I will be able to muddle through somehow.  “ For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14).

Back to the question in the title, I don’t believe that the New Testament Christian is obliged to give 10% of his income.  Many find it a useful guideline.  Some give much less, according to their circumstances and stage of life.  I know many who give several times 10%.  Is it OK to give 20% of our income and 0% of our time?  Perhaps the point is to never feel like we are doing God a favour by our giving.  It didn’t really belong to us in the first place.

They that seek to be rich

The sinful woman [who anointed Jesus’ feet] sought the company of the righteous; but these seek the company of the unrighteous. They visit each other to talk all manner of foolishness; to injure their neighbour’s reputation; to defame and backbite; to speak disgracefully of one another, speak of costly furniture, houses, goods and handsome companions, men and fine clothing. In short, their works openly show that they have not the faith of the sinful woman, and belong not to the congregation of the righteous.

The sinful woman sat at the feet of Jesus and heard his holy word; but these hear teachers, who can tickle their ears, and preach to please them. In short, why need I say much? it is, O God! so corrupted, that we find the whole world filled with foolish men and women, I mean spiritually, deaf ears, unenlightened hearts; the blind are leading the blind, and they will all fall into the pit of eternal death, unless they are again enlightened, if we believe it to be true what the mouth of the Lord has taught us; for their doctrine, sacraments, and worship are altogether false ; their unbelief, and carnality prevail every where. Behold, reader, here take notice, how vastly this sinful woman differs after conversion in her faith and conduct, from the faith and conduct of the world. They are like the sinful woman before her conversion, but not after conversion. Whether such are believers, I will let the sensible reader to reflect upon with the Spirit and word of the Lord.

I know of a certainty, that a proud, haughty, avaricious, selfish, unchaste, lecherous, wrangling, envious, disobedient, idolatrous, false, lying, unfaithful, thievish, defaming, backbiting, blood-thirsty, unmerciful and revengeful man, whosoever he may be, is no Christian, even if he was baptized one hundred times, and attended the Lord’s Supper daily; for it is not the sacraments, or the signs, such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but a sincere, Christian faith, with its unblamable, pious fruits, represented by the sacraments, that makes a true Christian and has the promise of life.

But our rich people seek more and more, how they may increase their money and possessions, build their houses splendidly, and add farm to farm. They do not defend the cause of the poor and needy; are unmerciful, proud, avaricious and wanton; do not remember what is written concerning them, “Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you ; your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten; your gold and silver is cankered, and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire,” James 5:1-3. Neither do you reflect on what David says, “I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like the green bay-tree; yet he passed away, and lo, he was not: Yea, I sought him, but he could not be found,” Ps. 37:35, 36. Ah! what a hard saying which the Lord uttered, “Woe unto you that are rich, for ye have received your consolation,” Luke 6:24, and “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,” Matt. 19:24.

[Excerpts from the Complete Works of Menno Simons.  Menno Simons (1496-1561) was a Dutch Roman Catholic priest who united with the persecuted Anabaptists after his conversion.  He was an effective preacher, writer and church leader of the persecuted church. ]

 

What is Christian Stewardship? Part 3

The New Testament admonishes us to “redeem the time”. Our understanding of this phrase is closely bound to our concept of stewardship.  Those who see stewardship primarily in material terms interpret this phrase as an injunction to occupy every minute with some gainful employment.

Interestingly enough, if we look at the context, we find the Apostle Paul was more concerned about spiritual things when he spoke of redeeming the time.  In Ephesians 5:16 the concern is to make sure of our own salvation.  In Colossians 4:5 it is our witness to those outside the Church.

The Greek word here does not refer to a quantity of time, but rather to the quality of time.  It is sometimes translated opportunity.  Are there are times when the Spirit prompts us to take time to pray, to meditate on God’s Word, but we are too busy being good stewards?  That is not redeeming the time.  Are there neighbours to visit, children to tell stories to, letters to write, but we are too busy?  That is not redeeming the time.  Did we meet someone today who seemed to be reaching out for answers, for a touch of human kindness, but we were too busy?  Is our concept of stewardship drawing us away from our real purpose in this world?

We can’t serve God and Mammon.  If we were to truly put the spiritual stewardship first, would we have such a problem with materialism?  At the very least I doubt that it would be such a mystery.  If we try to find our security in material things: money and the things money can buy; having a secure source of income; keeping up appearances; always doing things just about right; that is “covetousness, which is idolatry”.  Our choice is clear: choose Mammon who promises earthly security but delivers oppression; or choose Jesus who offers us the true security when all these earthly things fail.

What is Christian Stewardship? Part 2

The parable of the unjust steward, found in Luke 16, has mystified many commentators.  The conduct of this steward is clearly contrary to popular notions of good stewardship.  Yet verse 8 says “And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely”.  Some commentators try to wriggle out of this corner by noting that this was the lord of that steward speaking, and our Lord would never condone such behaviour.  This mind-set misses the point that Jesus instructs us to take the behaviour of the steward for our example.

The conclusion of this parable is found in verse 13: “No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.  Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”  This verse is an integral part of the explanation of the parable of the unjust steward.  To separate it is to find the parable confusing and perhaps meaningless.

What is the message of the parable of the unjust steward?  Here is a man who has been a servant of Mammon, exacting all that was due his master in order to gain a living and security for himself.  It was his responsibility as steward to set the rent each of his lord’s tenants in order to provide for the needs of the lord’s household.  He then added enough to each tenant’s rent to cover the needs of his own household.  The steward in this parable appears to have been living in abundance.

He is called unjust, not because of unfaithfulness to Mammon, but because of his close alliance with mammon, which itself is unrighteous (verses 9 and 11).  As eventually happens to all who trust in Mammon, he finds himself betrayed.  All that he trusted in is to be taken from him.  In this setting the light dawns and he turns around.  Before he had oppressed others in demanding payment to the maximum of their ability.  Now he administers a measure of grace to his master’s debtors in releasing them from a portion of their debts.  It is entirely within his power while still a steward to do this and it would appear that he simply erased the portion that he was taking for himself.  He now sees that it will be in his best interest in the long term to do what he can to release others from their burdens.

This interpretation may be problematic for Christians who see stewardship as being principally concerned with the gain and care of material wealth.  We may say that it is God’s will that we exercise good stewardship of our material possessions in order to  be able to share with others and support mission programs.  However, an onlooker might question whether we are motivated more by the portion that we want for themselves than by the portion that we plan to give to God.

Are the needs of others very high in the minds of Christians who are busy endeavouring to be good stewards?  Indeed, there is not much room for compassion in this type of stewardship.  It becomes easy to see that the poor are poor because they don’t want to work and don’t take care of what they do have.  A distinction is often made between the “deserving” poor and those not so “deserving”, which provides a neat way out when faced with those whose needs are very real, though perhaps self-inflicted.

We say that everything we have belongs to God and that we are only stewards.  Would an impartial observer of our business practices and lifestyle come to that conclusion?

What is Christian Stewardship? Part 1

The Christian lives in a world that is almost entirely governed by the pursuit of material gain.  Governments that seemed untouchable have fallen because they could not deliver the material goods that their citizens coveted.  Nominal Christianity long ago forged an alliance with the powers of materialism.

The Catholic church maintained a teaching against usury for many centuries, but enterprising Catholics found ways to circumvent this teaching.  During the middle ages the Catholic church found it necessary to borrow at usury from Catholic bankers.  Calvin was the first of the Reformers to explicitly condone usury.  It was also Calvin who formulated the precepts by which much of modern Christendom enters wholeheartedly into the material realm in the name of stewardship.

Christians and non-Christians have struggled to find solutions to the mastery Mammon holds over mankind.  We are familiar with the oppression caused by attempts to implement Karl Marx’s ideal society.  The Protestant doctrine of stewardship is really not too much different from Marx’s teaching: Christians should strive to earn all they can, in order to be able to share with those who are in need.  Nor have the followers of the Reformers been notably more compassionate than the followers of Marx.  Protestants went about the business of colonialism, slavery and commerce in a more cold and calculating way than Catholics.  They believed that material prosperity was evidence of God’s favour.  This status made it only right and proper for the favoured group to determine how much the less favoured were entitled to share in material blessings.

Our Anabaptist and Mennonite forefathers never participated in such oppression because they had a different concept of the place of material things in the life of a Christian.  If our vision of the nature and danger of materialism is not altogether clear today, could it be that we have unknowingly absorbed much of the Protestant teaching about money and possessions?
In the New Testament epistles stewardship is only used in the sense of stewardship of the Gospel: 1 Peter 4:18, “As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.”; Titus 1:7, “For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre;”; 1 Corinthians 4:1 & 2, “Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God, Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful.”  These are the only passages in the epistles where the Greek word oikonomos is translated as steward.

In Romans 16:23 and Galatians 4:2 where the meaning is clearly a secular office the translators used chamberlain and governor.  Oikonomia, translated as stewardship in Luke 16, is translated four times in the epistles as dispensation: 1 Cor. 9:17, “a dispensation of the gospel is committed unto me”; Eph. 1:10, “the dispensation of the fulness of times”; Eph. 3:2, “the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward”; Col. 1;25, “Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God”.

What is good stewardship?

Governments have always needed a source of revenue to administer their territory, but many years ago, tax collection was not done as it is today.  The gathering of taxes was farmed out to men who contracted to deliver a certain sum of money to the king or governor.  These men then collected the money from their fellow citizens, often as tolls from travellers or those bringing goods to market in the towns and cities.  They made sure they collected enough to pay what they had contracted to the king, plus enough to provide their own livelihood.

Typically, the amount collected for their own livelihood seemed over generous to their fellow citizens.  This was especially so in a place like Judea 2,000 years ago where the tax gatherers, or publicans, were making a very good living by raising money for the hated Roman conquerors.

This use of the term “farmed out” was the original meaning of “farm.”  In many countries, for a large part of history, the land was in the hands of large landowners, often called dukes or earls, or some such title of nobility.  These landowners then farmed out the land to peasants who would cultivate the land to raise crops.  A farmer was originally someone who rented land to till to raise a crop.  The word did not carry any connotation of owning the land that he farmed.  They generally paid the rent with the product of the land.

The lord, earl, duke, count or marquis who owned the land did not involve himself in the actual farming out of the land.  Even though the rent from his lands was generally his sole source of income, he had much more important affairs to look after to maintain himself in the favour of the king or lord who was over him.

The business of farming out the land was delegated to a steward, who operated much like the tax gatherers.  He would find out how much income the lord needed and then farm out the land on terms that would provide the revenue needed for the lord and some extra for himself.  This was the steward’s sole source of income.  He was not paid a salary.  Frequently, the steward had the second biggest home in the realm of his lord.  In other words, the steward was careful to look out for his own needs.

I’m afraid that the common idea of stewardship among people who call themselves Christians is very much like that.  We want to get the highest price possible when we sell something and pay the absolute rock bottom price when we buy something, because “it’s only good stewardship.”  Are we really doing this out of a concern for the welfare of our Lord’s Kingdom, or is it more out of a concern for our own welfare?

I’m afraid that many preachers and Bible commentators are so fully caught up in a selfish understanding of stewardship that they cannot understand the plain words that they read in Jesus’ parable of the unjust steward in Luke 16.  Let’s just follow the sequence of events described by Jesus.  Verses 1-2: the steward is accused of wasting his lord’s goods; Verses 3-5: the steward faces reality and realizes that he must do things differently than he has done heretofore; Verses 6-7: he calls on each renter of his lord’s lands and tells them to reduce the amount they had agreed to pay;  Verse 8: the lord of the steward commends him for acting wisely.

Now, if the lord who owned the land was pleased that the steward had marked down the amount of the rent that the farmers needed to pay, why do preachers and commentators condemn the man for doing it?  The reality here is that he had negotiated these agreements himself in the first place (that was his job as steward) and the amount that he now struck off each farmer’s rent was the amount that he had been taking for himself.  In some cases he was getting almost as much as his lord.  This was the unjust action for which he was accused.  His subsequent actions did not reduce the amount going to his lord, it just eliminated all that he had been taking for himself.

(By the way, it is quite likely that the steward was no longer a young man, this was not a task for someone young and inexperienced.  There is no need to question his statement in verse three that he was no longer able to till the soil himself.)

Jesus’ words in verses 9 to 14 instruct us to follow the example of this steward.  In the beginning he was acting as the servant of his lord, but he was also serving Mammon in trying to heap up treasures for himself to the detriment of the farmers of his lord’s lands.  In the end, he takes nothing for himself, bringing himself down to the level of the common people and trusting in their good will to receive him into their homes if he was in need.

Does that fit with our idea of stewardship?  I have the distinct impression that Jesus told this parable to turn our idea of stewardship upside down, to instruct us that it is more important to deal justly with our fellow men than to make sure that we always get the best of a deal.

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